The Big Kahn


By Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-561-0 (TPB)

When Rabbi Kahn died it shook the close-knit, devout community he had spent four decades building and guiding. Yet despite the best of intentions, his funeral – where first-born son Avi delivers a eulogy and prepares to assume his father’s role – devolves into a shocking shambles. Rebellious, troubled daughter Lea prefers furtive sex in a synagogue broom-closet to her rightful place beside her grieving mother and young Eli is clearly in a state of shock…

So tempers naturally flare when unsavoury gentile Roy Dobbs intrudes upon the event, demanding to see the body of his brother one final time…

With mixed emotions, the surviving family and larger congregation are forced to confront a terrible truth. David Kahn, Holocaust survivor, brilliant rabbinical scholar, wise and loving parent and spiritual glue for an entire community over more than forty years, was in fact Donnie Dobbs: a two-bit grifter and con-man who came to the neighbourhood to fleece the yokels but instead found something better and stayed to grow and blossom…

With his death, everything has changed. The man they all knew was a lie, so doesn’t that mean everything he said and did was too? Surely the children of David Kahn are tarred with the wicked same brush and destined to repeat his thoughts and deeds?

How these implications affect the Kahn children and their broken, bereft mother offers a masterpiece of human scrutiny, depicted with deft skill and great understanding, and the discreet, superbly underplayed monochrome art is effective and compassionate, wisely never intruding into the tale but always providing just what the reader needs to see.

Although not yet available digitally, The Big Kahn is an intriguing, compelling, thought-provoking human drama deserving the widest possible attention: a witty and powerful exploration of truths big and small, set against the backdrop of a traditional Jewish American community, cannily exploring not only faith’s effect on individuals but how mortals shape religion and all the big questions in life and after it…

It’s a subject we can all benefit from contemplating packaged as one of the best dramas you’ll ever read, so make the effort to add this lost gem to your must-own list ASAP…
© 2009 Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani.

Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 4


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-640-9 (HB)

Once upon a time the short complete tale was the sole staple of the comic book profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular discipline is all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko (November 2nd 1927 – c. June 29th 2018) was one of our industry’s greatest talents and probably America’s least lauded. His fervent desire was to just get on with his job telling stories the best way he could. Whilst the noblest of aspirations, that dream was always a minor consideration and frequently a stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of Funny book output. Let’s see what happens in the months to come now that COVID19 has wrought its horrific effects on the industry…

Before his time at Marvel, the young Ditko mastered his craft creating short stories for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy to be able to look at this work from a such an innocent time. Here he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This fourth fantastic full-colour deluxe hardback – and potently punchy digital treasure trove – reprints another heaping helping of his ever more impressive works: published between July 1957 and March 1959, and all courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics. Some of the issues here were actually put together under the St. John imprint, but when that company abruptly folded, much of its already prepared in-house material – even entire issues – were purchased and published by clearing-house specialist Charlton with almost no editorial changes.

And, whilst we’re being technically accurate it’s also important to note that the eventual publication dates of the stories in this collection don’t have a lot to do with when Ditko rendered these mini-masterpieces: Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print…

All the tales and covers reproduced here were drawn after implementation of the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority rules which sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt. They are uniformly wonderfully baroque and bizarre fantasies, suspense and science fiction yarns, helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by Ditko, but as at the time the astoundingly prolific Joe Gill was churning out hundreds of stories per year for Charlton, he is always everyone’s first guess when trying to attribute script credit…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, the evocative tales of mystery and imagination commence with ‘The Menace of the Maple Leaves’, an eerie haunted woods fable from Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957), closely followed a darkly sinister con-game which goes impossibly awry after a wealthy roué consults a supposed mystic to regain his youth and vitality before being treated in ‘The Forbidden Room’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #4 July 1957)…

From November 1957, Do You Believe in Nightmares? #1 offers a bounty of Ditko delights, beginning with the stunning St. John cover heralding a prophetic ‘Nightmare’; the strange secret of a prognosticating ‘Somnambulist’ and the justice which befalls a seasoned criminal in ‘The Strange Silence’ – all confirming how wry fate intervenes in the lives of mortals.

‘You Can Make Me Fly’ then goes a tad off-topic with a tale of brothers divided by morality and intellect after which the issue ends with a dinosaur-packed romp courtesy of ‘The Man Who Crashed into Another Era’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. Apparently the title came from a radio show which Charlton licensed, and the lead/host/narrator certainly acted more as voyeur than active participant, speaking “to camera” and asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human interest yarns all tinged with a hint of the weird and supernatural. When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #6 (December 1957), ‘Little Girl Lost’ chills spines and tugs heartstrings with the story of a doll that loved its human companion, followed by a paranoid chase from Strange Suspense Stories #35 (December 1957) as ‘There it is Again’ sees a scientist dogged by his most dangerous invention…

Unusual Tales #10 (January 1958) provides a spooky cover before disclosing the awesome secret of ‘The Repair Man from Nowhere’ and – following wickedly effective Cold War science fiction parable ‘Panic!’ from Strange Suspense Stories #35 – resumes with ‘A Strange Kiss’ that draws a mining engineer into a far better world…

Out of This World #6 (November 1957) provides access to ‘The Secret Room’ which forever changes the lives of an aging, destitute couple. Then cover and original artwork for Out of This World #12 (March 1959) lead to a tale in which a ruthless anthropologist is brought low by ‘A Living Doll’ he’d taken from a native village…

Returning to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #6 results in three more captivating yarns. ‘When Old Doc Died’ is perhaps the best in this book, displaying wry humour in the history of a country sawbones who is only content when helping others, whilst ‘The Old Fool’ everybody mocked proves to be his village’s greatest friend, and ‘Mister Evriman’ explores the metaphysics of mass TV viewing in a thoroughly chilling manner…

The dangers of science without scruple informs the salutary saga of a new invention in ‘The Edge of Fear’ (Unusual Tales #10, January 1958), after which the cover of This Magazine is Haunted #14 (December 1957) ushers us into cases recounted by ghoulish Dr. Haunt; specifically, a scary precursor to cloning in ‘The Second Self’ and a diagnosis of isolation and mutation which afflicts ‘The Green Man’

The cover and original art for giant-sized Out of This World #7 (February 1958) precedes ‘The Most Terrible Fate’ befalling a victim of atomic warfare whilst ‘Cure-All’ details a struggle between a country doctor and a sinister machine which heals any ailment.

We return to This Magazine is Haunted #14 as Dr. Haunt relates a ghastly monster’s progress ‘From Out of the Depths’ before ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ tells his uncanny story to disbelieving Federal agents. Out of This World #7 in turn provides an ethereal ringside seat from which to view a time-traveller’s ‘Journey to Paradise’…

From Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7 (March 1958), ‘And the Fear Grew’ relates how an Australian rancher falls foul of an insidiously malign but cute-looking critter, after which ‘The Heel and the Healer’ reveals how a snake-oil peddler finds a genuine magic cure-all, whilst ‘Never Again’ (Unusual Tales #10 again) takes an eons-long look at mankind’s atomic follies and ‘Through the Walls’ (Out of This World #7) sees a decent man framed and imprisoned, only to be saved by the power of astral projection…

Out of This World #12 (March 1959) declared ‘The World Awaits’ when a scientist uncovers an age-old secret regarding ant mutation and eugenics, Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) exposes ‘The Angry Things’ which haunt a suspiciously inexpensive Italian villa, and the gripping cover to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #10 (November 1958) segues into the unsuspected sacrifice of a jazz virtuoso who saves the world in ‘Little Boy Blue’

A tragic orphan finds new parents after ‘The Vision Came’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #8, July 1958) before Dr. Haunt proves television to be a cause of great terror in ‘Impossible, But…’ (from This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #16, May 1958) – an issue which also discloses the world-changing fate of a Soviet scientist who became ‘The Man from Time’…

Another selfless inventor chooses to be a ‘Failure’ rather than doom humanity to eternal servitude in a stunning yarn from Strange Suspense Stories #36 (March 1958), whilst the luckiest man alive at last experiences the downside of being ‘Not Normal’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7) after which Unusual Tales #11 – from March 1958 – reveals the secret of Presidential statesmanship to a young politician in ‘Charmed, I’m Sure’, and exposes a magical secret race through an author’s vacation ‘Deep in the Mountains’

This mesmerising collection concludes with the suitably bizarre tale of Egyptian lucky charm ‘The Dancing Cat’ (Strange Suspense Stories #37, July 1958) to ensure the spooky afterglow remains long after the final page and leaves you hungry for more mystic merriment and arcane enjoyment…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, stripped down plots and simple dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise. The stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat a decade later, making this is cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling examination into the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is a book serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2013 Blake Bell. All rights reserved.

Spirou and Fantasio volume 3 and 4: Running Scared and Valley of the Exiles


By Tome & Janry, colored by Stephane de Becker & translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-116-7 (Running Album PB), 978-1-84918-157-0 (Exiles Album PB)

For most English-speaking comic fans and collectors, Spirou is probably Europe’s biggest secret. The character is a rough contemporary – and calculated commercial response – to Hergé’s iconic Tintin, whilst the comic he has headlined for decades is only beaten in sheer longevity and manic creativity by our own Beano and America’s Detective Comics.

Conceived at Belgian Printing House by Jean Dupuis in 1936, this anthological magazine targeting a juvenile audience debuted on April 21st 1938; neatly bracketed by DC Thomson’s The Dandy which launched on 4th December 1937 and The Beano on July 30th 1938. It was edited by Charles Dupuis (a mere tadpole, only 19 years old, himself) and took its name from the lead feature, which recounted improbable adventures of a plucky Bellboy/lift operator employed by the Moustique Hotel (a sly reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique).

Joined on June 8th 1939 by pet squirrel, Spip (the longest running character in the strip after Spirou himself), the series was visually realised by French artist Robert Velter (who signed himself Rob-Vel). A Dutch language edition – Robbedoes debuted a few weeks later, running more-or-less in tandem with the French parent comic until cancellation in 2005.

The bulk of the periodical was taken up with cheap American imports – such as Fred Harman’s Red Ryder, William Ritt & Clarence Gray’s Brick Bradford and Siegel & Shuster’s landmark Superman – although home-grown product crept in too. Most prominent were Tif et Tondu by Fernand Dineur (which ran until the1990s) and L’Epervier Blue by Sirius (Max Mayeu), latterly accompanied by work from comic-strip wunderkind Joseph Gillain – “Jijé”.

Legendarily, during World War II Jijé drew the entire comic by himself, including home grown versions of banned US imports, simultaneously assuming production of the Spirou strip where he created current co-star and partner Fantasio).

Except for a brief period when the Nazis closed the comic down (September 1943 to October 1944) Le Journal de Spirouand its boyish star – now a globe-trotting journalist – have continued their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory. Among other myriad major features that began within those hallowed pages are Jean Valhardi (by Jean Doisy & Jije), Blondin et Cirage (Victor Hubinon), Buck Danny, ‘Jerry Spring, Les Schtroumpfs (The Smurfs to you and me), Gaston Lagaffe/Gomer Goof and a certain laconic cowboy named Lucky Luke.

Spirou the character (whose name translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous”) has starred in the magazine for most of its life, evolving under a series of creators into an urbane yet raucous fantasy/adventure hero with the accent heavily on light humour. With comrade and rival Fantasio and crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac, Spirou voyages to exotic locales, uncovering crimes, revealing the fantastic and garnering a coterie of exotic arch-enemies.

During WWII when Velter went off to fight, his wife Blanche Dumoulin took over the strip using the name Davine, assisted by Luc Lafnet. Publisher Dupuis assumed control of and rights to the strip in 1943, assigning it to Jijé who then handed it to his assistant André Franquin in 1946. It was the start of a golden age.

Among Franquin’s innovations were the villains Zorglub and Zantafio, Champignac and one of the first strong female characters in European comics, rival journalist Seccotine (renamed Cellophine for Cinebook’s English translations), but his greatest creation – one he retained on his own departure in 1969 – was incredible magic animal Marsupilami. The miracle beast was first seen in Spirou et les héritiers (1952), and is now a star of screen, plush toy store, console… and albums too.

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin, but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spiroulimit and resigned, taking his mystic yellow monkey with him. He was succeeded by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of 9 rousing yarns tapping into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times, telling tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

By the 1980s, the series seemed to stall: three different creative teams alternated on the serial: Raoul Cauvin & Nic Broca, Yves Chaland and the author of the adventure under review here: Philippe Vandevelde writing as Tome and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry. These last adapted and referenced the still-beloved Franquin era and revived the feature’s fortunes, producing 14 wonderful albums between 1984-1998. Since their departure, Lewis Trondheim and the teams of Jean-Davide Morvan & Jose-Luis Munuera and Fabien Vehlmann & Yoann have brought the official album count to 55 (there also dozens of specials, spin-offs series and one-shots, official and otherwise)…

Running Scared is from 1988: originally entitled La frousse aux trousses or ‘Fear on the Trail’. It was their eighth and the 40th collection of the evergreen adventurers. Harking back to the Fournier years, it comprises the first of an excellent extended 2-part thriller which concluded in Valley of the Exiles (originally released as La vallée des bannis AKA ‘Valley of the Banished’ in 1989).

Running Scared opens with a frantic and mesmeric chase scene as our eponymous young star races across the city in splendid breakneck tribute to the silent movie chases of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. He’s late for a conference where he will recount his many harrowing, career-related escapes and show films of his numerous close shaves…

Barely making it, Spirou is disappointed by the reaction of the audience: those that don’t faint dead away from fear, flee the theatre in horror…

It’s a huge disappointment: the daring reporter was hoping to use the profits from the lecture tour to fund an upcoming expedition to discover the fate of two explorers who vanished in 1938. They were attempting to climb a mountain and discover the legendary “Valley of Exiles” in the mysterious Himalayan nation of Yurmaheesun-shan

Since 1950, the tiny country has been subject to numerous invasions by rival super-powers and is a hotbed of rebellion, insurgency and civil war. Nevertheless, ever-undaunted Spirou and Fantasio are utterly determined to solve the ancient mystery.

Happily, their plans are only temporarily derailed. One of the fainters at the conference is timid but esteemed Dr. Placebo: renowned authority on the medical condition Spasmodia Maligna and a man convinced that the only cure for the condition – prolonged, sustained and life-threatening synchronous diaphragmatic flutters (hiccups to you and me) – is to be scared out of one’s wits.

Having seen Spirou in action, Placebo wants the reporters to take his most chronic patients with them on the assignment and offers to fund the entire expedition to the war-torn hell-hole…

Over Fantasio’s cynical but sensible objections, a deal is struck and soon the lads, Spip and five disparate, desperate hiccupping victims are sneaking across the Nepalese border where diligent Captain Yi is tasked with keeping all foreigners – and especially western journalists – out of the country as it undergoes its pacification and re-education…

However, thanks to native translator Gorpah (a wily veteran guide who once proved invaluable to another red-headed reporter, as well as his little white dog and foul mouthed-sea captain pal) the daring band are soon deep in-country, but the occupying invasion forces are quickly hot on their trail in tanks, armoured cars and attack helicopters: providing plenty of opportunities for the annoyingly obnoxious singulitus flutterers to be terrified – but with little evidence of a cure…

And then, just as they find their first real clue as to the location of the lost Valley of Exiles, the explorers are captured by native partisans and rebels. Even this doesn’t scare off any hiccups, nor does the daring later escape attempt masterminded by Spirou and Fantasio.

As the liberated captives pile into a lorry, a huge storm breaks and the rebels give chase, but when one of their pursuer’s vehicles plunges over a cliff, the valiant fugitives frantically form a human chain to rescue the driver and in the horrendous conditions Spirou is washed away and lost in the raging torrent.

…And that’s when all the hiccupping finally stops…

To Be Continued…

Starting in superb slapstick comedy mode and with gallons of gags throughout, Running Scared quickly evolves into a dark-edged, cunningly shaded satirical critique of then current geo-political scandals like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and systematic eradication of Tibetan culture by the Chinese – which both of course still resonate in today’s world – as it unfolds an epic and utterly compelling rollercoaster of fun and thrills.

Valley of the Exiles! concludes the excellent exotic escapade with the roving reporters retracing the steps and uncovering the whereabouts of explorers who vanished climbing a mountain before discovering a legendary lost valley in the inscrutable, isolated Himalayan nation of Yurmaheesun-shan

The story resumes with the battered, weary duo entombed deep within a Himalayan mountain. Slowly, blindly, they grope their way towards a faint light, emerging through an ancient, barbaric idol’s head into the very place they’ve been seeking…

Utterly enclosed by peaks, the Valley is an idyllic paradise but its very isolation has led to the development of a number of truly unique species of flora and fauna. There are colossal carnivorous waterlily pads, ferociously determined man-eating turtles, electric geckoes, the seductive Hammock Flytrap and many more bizarre and potentially lethal creatures.

The one that most imperils the lost boys is the diminutive Manic Midgie: a mosquito-like bug carrying the disease “raging hostiliasis”. Not long after one bites Fantasio, poor Spirou realises his best friend has become a homicidal maniac determined to kill him and everything else in range…

The deranged lad goes completely off the deep end, and only luck and a handy itching-powder boxing glove plant prevents our favourite reporter’s gory demise. Wounded, hunted by his best friend and perhaps the only human in the apparently inescapable enclosed wilderness, near-despondent Spirou – and Spip – begin exploring their incredible prison and find a rough shack, proving that at some time other humans have been there.

Further investigation reveals it to be the last resting place of the lost explorers Siegfried and Maginot. The mystery of the 1938 expedition is solved – even though Spirou has no way of filing this scoop!

More worryingly, Maginot’s copious notes on the creatures of the valley offer some grim hypotheses as to the nature of the nature in this fantastic hidden gorge: creatures inimical to both body and mind of man. Plants that cast illusions, murderous mammals mimicking harmless life, bugs whose bite produces madness…

Crazed beyond imagining – and burbling hilarious, fourth-wall breaking nonsense – Fantasio is determinedly hunting his old friend. The frantic chase drives our limping hero deep into a hidden temple where he uncovers the remnants of fantastic lost civilisation Backik: a race banished by Mongol conquerors to this distant valley. These reluctant settlers lived just long enough for the manic-midgies to bring their unlucky lives crashing down into doom and disaster…

As Spirou lurches through the eerie tombs of the fallen Backiks, Fantasio ambushes him and prepares to finish off his former friend when a mysterious figure attacks…

A little later, Spirou awakens in the warming sunlight of the valley, with deranged Fantasio securely bound beside him. Resolved to escape this fantastic trap and get his crazy pal back to civilisation and medical assistance, our red-headed hero begins to explore his best options only to feel the terrifying sting of a mosquito. Is all lost?

Of course not…

Packed with oodles of action and a host of incredible surprises and revelations, Valley of the Exiles is a truly splendid escapade, with thrills, chills, spills, a mountain of choice comedy moments and eccentric, surreal mysteries to keep readers spellbound.

This kind of engaging, lightly-barbed adventure comedy-thriller is a sheer joy in an arena far too full of adults-only carnage, sordid cheesecake titillation, testosterone-fuelled breast-beating, teen-romance monsters or sickly-sweet fantasy. Easily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with all the beguiling style and seductive but wholesome élan which makes Asterix, Lucky Luke, The Bluecoats and Iznogoud so compelling, this is another cracking read from a long line of superb exploits, certain to be as much a household name as those series – and yes, even that other red-headed kid with the white dog…
Running Scared original edition © Dupuis, 1988 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2012 © Cinebook Ltd.
Valley of the Exiles original edition © Dupuis, 1989 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2013 © Cinebook Ltd.

Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery (New Edition/10th Anniversary Edition)


By Mat Johnson & Warren Pleece, with Clem Robbins (Berger Books/Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-50670-564-4 (HB) eISBN: 978-1-50670-591-0

What’s prejudice? How does bigotry and that unthinking fear and hatred of otherness work? What happens when haters can’t tell the difference between “us” and “them?” Those are frankly disturbing and astonishing questions first asked in 2008 in an Original Graphic Novel released by DC’s Vertigo imprint that made a lot of noise and changed some lives. The book won acclaim and awards and its subject matter started a few conversations in exactly the right places: classrooms where it became a selected text for high schools and colleges.

This 10th Anniversary edition reprints the original tale in all its moody monochrome glory, backed up by a contextualising Author’s Note (‘I grew up a black boy who looked white’) and Afterword; a copious sketchbook section featuring designs by Pleece and ‘Reading Group Guide/Questions & Topics for Discussion’.

The tale itself is set in the segregationist South in the early 1930s and opens at a social gathering in Tuscaloosa with families all happily gathering to see a black boy strung up. As the attendees patiently queue for a picture with the “strange fruit”, a newcomer takes their names and addresses. It’s only when the photographer denies hiring him that Zane Pinchback of New York City’s African American newspaper The New Holland Herald realises he’s pushed his luck and needs to run for his life…

Sadly, however, not before a visiting bigwig from the Ku Klux Klan gats a good look at him and starts wondering…

Safely back north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Zane’s latest headline grabber upsets liberals and shames the perpetrators but the journalist is still unhappy. His exposés change nothing and he feels a fraud: a proud black man who makes a living pretending to be white. He can’t even use his own name – hence the byline “Incognegro” – or face on his widely syndicated columns: that would instantly negate the genetic advantage of a negro who can “pass”…

Things are liberal enough in Manhattan that he and his debonair wastrel pal Carl can intermingle with most folk and go drinking in swish clubs, but Zane knows things can go bad easily enough and resolves to quit and go legit…

His editor staunchly refuses to accept, instead offering him a deal: one more undercover assignment. He is certain Zane will accept. The negro jailed in Tupelo, Mississippi and accused of killing a white woman is a man he’s known his entire life. Heading off in a hurry and readying himself to play the high stakes game of his life, Zane has no idea how complex and convoluted this case will be, or that blithely incautious Carl has invited himself along to a place where his kind of idiocy has lethal consequences…

Author Mat Johnson took inspiration from his own childhood and the activities of Walter White (ultimately Chief Exec of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) who began his career investigating lynchings because of the same genetic quirk as Zane Pinchback…

Available in hardcover, trade paperback, digital editions and even in its original DC/Vertigo edition – Incognegro is smart, funny where it can be and devastatingly effective whenever it needs to be. As well as the racial injustice so savagely skewered here, this is a cunning and engrossing murder mystery with plenty of twists, which even finds room to have a stab at the still largely unaddressed problems of women’s independence and transgender acceptance. If you love great storytelling underpinned by real-world issues, this is something you must see.
Incognegro™ © 2008, 2018 Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece. All rights reserved.

Shaft Volume 2: Imitation of Life


By David F. Walker, Dietrich Smith & various (Dynamite Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-52410-260-9 (TPB)

For most of modern history black consumers of popular entertainments have enjoyed far too few fictive role models. In the English-speaking world that began changing in the turbulent 1960s and truly took hold during the decade that followed. A lot of the characters stemming from those days come from a cultural phenomenon called Blaxploitation. Although criticised for its seedy antecedents, stereotypical situations and violence, the films, books, music and art were the first mass-market examples of minority characters in leading roles, rather than as fodder, flunkies or flamboyant villains.

One of the earliest movie icons of the genre was the man called Shaft. His filmic debut in 1971 was scripted by journalist and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (The French Connection; High Plains Drifter; A Force of One) who adapted his own 1970 novel. Tidyman authored six more between 1972 and 1975, with his timeless urban warrior simultaneously starring in numerous films and a (far, far tamer) TV series. He even starred in his own retro-themed, adults-only comic book…

An eighth prose novel – Shaft’s Revenge – was released in 2016, written by David F. Walker. Amongst his many talents – you should hunt down his online culture-crunching ‘zine BadAzzMoFo: you won’t be sorry – Walker numbers writing intriguing, hard-edged comics (Occupy Avengers; Cyborg; Red Sonja, Planet of the Apes, Tarzan on the Planet of the Apes and many more), so in 2014 it was probably inevitable that he be invited to write that long-overdue comics iteration…

Blockbusting premier miniseries Shaft: A Complicated Man – relating the lone wolf’s origins – happily led to this sequel in 2016, illustrated by Dietrich Smith and coloured by Alex Guimarães (Walker lettered the series himself), and whereas that comic book took its look, settings and tone from the novels more than the Richard Roundtree films, this one gradually refocuses and aims for a satisfactory blending of the prose and film iterations.

Originally released as a 4-issue miniseries, Imitation of Life finds the detective ‘Before and After’, regretting his life choices, successes and recent notoriety as the highly publicised rescue of an abducted girl suddenly make him a famous man…

It’s nothing he wanted: he was literally forced to take the job by a big-time mobster no one in their right mind ever refuses, and now after sorting the problem in his inimitably pitiless manner, Shaft is slowly drinking himself to death on the huge fee he also couldn’t safely turn down…

Eventually guilt and boredom compel him to get back in the game and, with no money worries, he can pick and choose from a big list of inquiries. That said, Shaft can’t explain just why he takes on the pointless problems of the Prossers; a hick couple desperate to find their son. Mike is 18; a good-looking homosexual (we say “gay” today) kid swallowed up by the sleaze-peddlers of 1970s Times Square. He’s legal and not even a real missing person, but there’s something Shaft can’t get out of his head about this particular runaway…

Convinced it’s all pointless, Big John hits the appropriate bars and clubs but no one knows anything: they never do. And then a kid named Tito recognizes him and just like that, the violence starts coming…

Surviving a homophobic attack – and teaching a few bigots the cost of intolerance – Shaft finds his case stalled just as shady wannabe filmmakers seeks to hire him to consult on their new (blaxsploitation) flick The Black Dick. It promises to be an easy gig, but they never are…

Before long Shaft is writhing in discomfort as the script ludicrously bastardises his career and reputation, but when Tito turns up and bamboozles the detective into facing off with a Mafia pornographer just as the secret moneyman behind his own filmic fiasco starts demanding an early return on his investment, it stops being a laugh and becomes deadly serious again. Once more, he remembers there’s no such thing as ‘Easy Money’

As the fictional and real worlds increasingly intersect, Vice cops contact Shaft and he sees that somehow all his irons seem to be stacked in the same fire. When the ludicrous leading man is abducted and troublemaking Tito pops up again with some very dangerous photographs from his own incessant snooping, Shaft discovers in ‘Love & Loss’ just what happened to Mike Prosser and tools up to rescue one bad actor while invading a film set where pornos and snuff films are the preferred hot product…

The strands all pull together in a typically cathartic climax as ‘All the World’s a Stage’ sees order restored, the bad guys dealt with righteously and even sets up a delicious funny ending to usher us out…

Revisiting a foetid cesspool of civic corruption, warring mobsters and get-rich-quick chancers, this tour of a mythic milieu is another wry and intoxicating crime thriller no fan of the genre should miss…
Shaft is ™ and © 2016 Ernest Tidyman. All rights reserved.

Spirou & Fantasio volume 2: In New York


By Tome & Janry, translated by Jerome Saincantin (Cinebook)
ISBN: 978-1-84918-054-2 (Album PB)

For most English-speaking comic fans and collectors Spirou is probably Europe’s biggest secret. The character is a rough contemporary – and calculated commercial response – to Hergé’s iconic Tintin, whilst the comic he has headlined for decades is only beaten in sheer longevity and manic creativity by our own Beano and America’s Detective Comics.

Conceived at Belgian Printing House by Jean Dupuis in 1936, this anthological magazine targeting a juvenile audience debuted on April 21st 1938; neatly bracketed by DC Thomson’s The Dandy which launched on 4th December 1937 and The Beano on July 30th 1938. It was edited by Charles Dupuis (a mere tadpole, only 19 years old, himself) and took its name from its lead feature, which recounted the improbable adventures of a plucky Bellboy/lift operator employed by the Moustique Hotel (a reference to the publisher’s premier periodical Le Moustique).

Joined on June 8th 1939 by a pet squirrel, Spip (the longest running character in the strip after Spirou himself) the series was visually realised by French artist Robert Velter (who signed himself Rob-Vel).

A Dutch language edition – Robbedoesdebuted a few weeks later and ran more-or-less in tandem with the French parent comic until it was cancelled in 2005.

The bulk of the periodical was taken up with cheap American imports – such as Fred Harman’s Red Ryder, William Ritt & Clarence Gray’s Brick Bradford and Siegel & Shuster’s landmark Superman – although home-grown product crept in too. Most prominent were Tif et Tondu by Fernand Dineur (which ran until the1990s) and L’Epervier Blue by Sirius (Max Mayeu), latterly accompanied by comic-strip wunderkind Joseph Gillain – “Jijé”.

Legendarily, during World War II Jijé drew the entire comic by himself, including home grown versions of banned US imports, simultaneously assuming production of the Spirou strip where he created current co-star and partner Fantasio).

Except for a brief period when the Nazis closed the comic down (September 1943 to October 1944) Spirou and its boyish star – now a globe-trotting journalist – have continued their weekly exploits in unbroken four-colour glory.

Among the other myriad major features that began within those hallowed pages are Jean Valhardi (by Jean Doisy & Jije), Blondin et Cirage (Victor Hubinon), Buck Danny, ‘Jerry Spring , Les Schtroumpfs (The Smurfs to you and me), Gaston Lagaffe and a certain laconic cowboy named Lucky Luke.

Spirou the character (whose name translates as both “squirrel” and “mischievous”) has starred in the magazine for most of its life, evolving under a series of creators into an urbane yet raucous fantasy/adventure hero with the accent heavily on light humour. With comrade and rival Fantasio and crackpot inventor the Count of Champignac, Spirou voyages to exotic locales, uncovering crimes, revealing the fantastic and garnering a coterie of exotic arch-enemies.

During WWII when Velter went off to fight, his wife Blanche Dumoulin took over the strip using the name Davine, assisted by Luc Lafnet. Publisher Dupuis assumed control of and rights to the strip in 1943, assigning it to Jijé who then handed it to his assistant André Franquin in 1946. It was the start of a golden age.

Among Franquin’s innovations were the villains Zorglub and Zantafio, Champignac and one of the first strong female characters in European comics, rival journalist Seccotine (renamed Cellophine for these current English translations), but his greatest creation – one he retained on his own departure in 1969 – was the incredible magic animal Marsupilami. The miracle beast was first seen in Spirou et les héritiers (1952), and is now a star of screen, plush toy store, console and albums too.

From 1959, writer Greg and background artist Jidéhem assisted Franquin, but by 1969 the artist had reached his Spirou limit and resigned, taking his mystic yellow monkey with him. He was succeeded by Jean-Claude Fournier who updated the feature over the course of 9 rousing yarns tapping into the rebellious, relevant zeitgeist of the times, telling tales of environmental concern, nuclear energy, drug cartels and repressive regimes.

By the 1980s the series seemed to stall: three different creative teams alternated on the serial: Raoul Cauvin & Nic Broca, Yves Chaland and the author of the adventure under review here: Philippe Vandevelde writing as Tome and artist Jean-Richard Geurts AKA Janry. These last adapted and referenced the still-beloved Franquin era and revived the feature’s fortunes, producing 14 wonderful albums between 1984-1998. This one from 1987, originally entitled Spirou à New-York, was their 7th and the 39th collection of the venerable comedy sagas.

Since their departure Lewis Trondheim and the teams of Jean-Davide Morvan & Jose-Luis Munuera and Fabien Vehlmann & Yoann have brought the official album count to 55 (there also dozens of specials, spin-offs series and one-shots, official and otherwise)…

Right here, right now, however, we’re off to the New World…

In the Big Apple there is war between two criminal factions. The Mafia are steadily losing ground and men to the insidiously encroaching Chinese Triad of the mysterious Mandarin.

Don Vito “Lucky” Cortizone is advised that it’s due to an incredible run of bad luck and sensibly undertakes to find and “recruit” the luckiest person on Earth to turn his gang’s fortunes around…

Meanwhile in Paris Spirou and Fantasio are broke again. Starving with days until payday, they scrape just enough coins together from beneath the sofa cushions for one last frozen pizza…

The tasteless American import has a key inside which almost chokes Fantasio but also claims that they’ve won a million dollars. All they have to do is collect it in person from Lucky’s Bank in New York City. Their fortunes are rapidly changing: an assignment from the unscrupulous editor of Turbine Magazine gives them airplane tickets and the promise of work covering a car-ball match in NYC – but only if they leave immediately…

The world seems full of offers they simply cannot refuse…

Once they are in the New York Groove, the story shifts into lavishly ludicrous high gear: Cortizone – permanently stuck under a rain cloud which follows him everywhere – hides nothing from the continental kids but appeals to their greed and fellow feeling to help him out of his tight spot. The implacable, insidious Chinese are beating him at every turn. It’s almost like magic…

But as his made men continue to fall around him and Triad assassins keep getting closer and closer, The Don wants to carry out a few tests first – just to see how lucky Fantasio actually is…

Meanwhile, the Mandarin and his reluctant but particularly effective wizard stooge have gotten wind of the scheme and move to negate the Europeans’ influence by kidnapping Spip. Even if it doesn’t forestall their interference, at least the enigmatic mastermind will have something new and exotic to eat…

The diabolical cut-and-thrust shenanigans lead to a daring rescue mission on the Mandarin’s skyscraper citadel and an inevitably spectacular showdown in the skies over Manhattan…

With outrageous and improbable supernatural overtones, hilariously clever criminal capers, sly digs at American movies-as-culture and daring dabblings with racial and cultural stereotypes and archetypes, all leavened with witty in-jokes, spoofs, lampoons and visual puns, this fast-paced, riotous rollercoaster romp is sheer comic poetry that it would be a crime to miss.

Available in paperback and assorted digital formats, this blend of thrilling mystery, weird science, light adventure and broad slapstick is a refreshingly reinvigorating joy in a market far too full of adults-only carnage and testosterone-fuelled breast-beating. Easily accessible to readers of all ages and drawn with all the welcoming style and panache that make Asterix, Lucky Luke and Iznogoud so compelling, this is another cracking read from a long line of superb exploits which should soon be as much a household name as those series – and even Tintin himself…
Original edition © Dupuis, 1987 by Tome & Janry. All rights reserved. English translation 2010 © Cinebook Ltd.

Gotham Central Book 3: On the Freak Beat


By Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, Stephen Gaudiano, Jason Alexander & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2754-8 (HB) 978-1-4012-3232-0 (TPB)

One of the great joys of long-lasting, legendary comics characters is their potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case was Gotham Central, wherein contemporary television sensibilities cannily combined with the deadly drudgery of the long-suffering boys in blue in the world’s most famous four-colour city.

Owing as much to shows such as Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it did to the baroque continuity of Batman, the series mixed gritty, authentic police action with a soft-underbelly peek at what the merely mortal guardians and peacekeepers had to put up with in a world of psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just won’t stay dead.

This compilation – available in hardback, soft cover and eBook editions – collects Gotham Central #23-31 (spanning November 2004-July 2005) and opens with a handy double-page feature re-introducing the hardworking stiffs of First Shift, Second Shift and the Police Support Team of the ‘Gotham City Police Department, Major Crimes Unit’ before the dramas start to unfold.

Gotham City is a bad place to be a cop – even a crooked one. If you’re a straight arrow it’s even worse because then both sides of the street want you dead. When Detectives Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya turn their attention to corrupt Crime Scene Investigator Jim Corrigan it sets them both on a path steeped in tragedy and loss… and bloody betrayal. ‘Corrigan’(originally published in issues #23-24) is by regular team Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano.

The same team bring us ‘Lights Out’ (issue #25) as, in the aftermath of the War Games debacle and resultant bloodbath (see Batman: War Drums; War Games: Outbreak, Tides, Endgame and War Crimes), new police commissioner Akins severs all official ties to the Batman and has the Bat-Signal removed from Police Headquarters roof.

Ed Brubaker & Jason Alexander take us ‘On the Freak Beat’ (#26-27) as Detectives Marcus Driver and (secretly psychic) Josie MacDonald investigate the murder of a televangelist. Despite all the leads and evidence pointing to Catwoman as the killer, their dedicated efforts take them into a sordid world of hypocrisy, S&M, lies and real estate chicanery before the truth comes out and the real culprit is brought to justice…

“Keystone Cops” (issues #28-31) is another superb blend of the procedural and the outlandish as beat cop Andy Kelly is horrifically mutated by a super-criminal’s booby-trap whilst rescuing kids from a fire. Montoya and Allen must cross jurisdictional boundaries and moral landmarks to obtain the assistance of deranged Flash villain Doctor Alchemy if there’s any hope of curing their comrade…

With the most chilling exploration of a super-villain’s motivation in many a year and a generous tip of the hat to The Silence of the Lambs, this is a moody masterpiece with an unsuspected kick in the tail. Rucka writes and Gaudiano graduates from inks to pencils with the embellishment falling to the capable Kano & Gary Amaro to conclude this stunning deep dive into urban atrocity in unforgettable style.
© 2004, 2005, 2010 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Detective Comics: 80 years of Batman Deluxe edition


By Bob Kane & Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Jim Chambers, Mort Weisinger, Jack Kirby & Joe Simon, Don Cameron, Joe Samachson, Edmond Hamilton, John Broome, Gardner Fox, Frank Robbins, Archie Goodwin, Denny O’Neil, Steve Englehart, Bob Rozakis, Alan Brennert, Harlan Ellison, Greg Rucka, Paul Levitz, Brad Meltzer, Scott Snyder, Neil Gaiman, Lee Harris, Dick Sprang, Carmine Infantino, Ruben Moreira, Joe Certa, Sheldon Moldoff, Neal Adams, Walter Simonson, Dick Giordano, Marshall Rogers, Michael Golden, Gene Colan, Shawn Martinbrough, Denys Cowan, Bryan Hitch, Sean Murphy, Mark Chiarello plus many & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-8538-8 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Wholly Dark Knight, Batman!… 9/10

Although he’s frequently played second fiddle to his pioneering predecessor Superman (who debuted in Action Comics #1, June 1938), the Dark Knight has, over his eighty years, grown to become the planet’s most popular superhero. He does have some bragging rights to longevity however, as he debuted in the company’s most prestigious – and arguably premiere – comics title.

Detective Comics #1 had a March 1937 cover-date and was the third and last anthology title devised by luckless pioneer Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. In 1935, the entrepreneur had seen the potential in Max Gaines’ new invention – the comic book – and quickly conceived and released packages of all-new material entitled New Fun: The Big Comic Magazine and follow-up New Fun/New Adventure (which ultimately became Adventure Comics) under the banner of National Allied Publications.

These broke away from the tentative prototype comics magazines which simply reprinted edited collations of established newspaper strips. They were though as varied and undirected in content as much as any funnies page. Detective Comics was different, specialising only in tales of crime and crimebusters. The initial roster included amongst many others adventurer Speed Saunders, Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise, Gumshoe Gus and two series by a couple of kids from Cleveland named Siegel & Shuster: Bart Regan: Spy and two-fisted shamus Slam Bradley

Within two years Wheeler-Nicholson had been forced out by his business partners, and eventually his company grew into monolithic DC – for Detective Comics – Comics.

Instrumental in that meteoric rise and monumental success was the hero initially called “The Bat-Man” when he debuted in the 27th issue, dated May 1939…

This bold compilation celebrates the magic of that title and it’s reaching the magic number 1000, not just with the now-traditional re-runs of classic Batman tales, but through informative articles and fascinating glimpses at some of the other characters who shared those (mostly) monthly pages with him.

Available as a bonanza hardback and in various digital formats, this epic album curates material from Detective Comics#20, 27, 38, 60, 64, 66, 140, 151, 225, 233, 267, 298, 327, 359, 400, 437, 443, 457, 474, 482, 500, 567, 742 plus Detective Comics volume 2 #27, and opens with an Introduction by Dan Didio, a mission-statement Batman pin-up from Jim Lee, an historically erudite Editor’s Note by Paul Levitz, and a fond Foreword from US Senator Patrick Leahy, before the parade of comic tales and eye-catching covers kicks off.

Most early episodes were untitled, but for everyone’s convenience have here been given descriptive appellations by the editors. Thus, after its iconic cover by Leo O’Mealia, a groundbreaking treat from Detective Comics #20 (October 1939) reveals the title’s original prototypical costumed crusader as The Crimson Avenger (at this time a knock-off of pulp paragons such as The Shadow, Spider or Green Hornet) tackles a corrupt attorney and his gang in ‘Block Buster’; a rousing romp by Jim Chambers.

The scene was set: the sheriffs, P.I.s, government operatives and gentleman daredevils now moved over a bit to welcome a new kind of white knight: the masked mystery man…

That literary landscape is examined in Anthony Tollin’s essay Batman Foreshadowed, after which Detective Comics #27 (with cover by Bob Kane) provides ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’ by Bill Finger & Kane: a spartan, understated yarn introducing dilettante playboy criminologist Bruce Wayne, craftily inserting himself into a straightforward crime-caper wherein a cabal of industrialists are successively murdered. The killings stop only after an eerie figure dubbed “The Bat-Man” intrudes on Police Commissioner Gordon’s stalled investigation, pitilessly exposing and dealing with the hidden killer.

Also taken from that landmark issue, ‘The Murderer on Vacation’ by Jerry Seigel & Joe Shuster reveals how hardboiled private investigator Slam Bradley and sidekick Shorty Morgan track an escaped convict to snowy Switzerland to ensure the killer’s appointment with the electric chair is met…

Following another iconic cover by Kane & Jerry Robinson, #38 (April 1940 by Finger, Kane & Robinson) changes the freshly emerging landscape of comic books forever with ‘Robin, The Boy Wonder’: child trapeze artist Dick Graysonwhose performer parents are murdered before his eyes and who thereafter joins Batman in a lifelong quest for justice, beginning with bringing down mobster mad dog Boss Zucco

With a pattern of high-flying action and savvy crime-crushing established, the Dynamic Duo went from strength to strength, but they were not the only masked marvels on show. Amateur radio technician and District Attorney’s clerk Larry Jordan used super-science and brilliant invention to battle crime as Air Wave for six years. Behind a Robinson/Fred Ray Batman cover, #60’s ‘The Case of the Missing Evidence’ (February 1942 by Mort Weisinger, Lee Harris/Harris Levy & Charles Paris) debuts the Microphonic Manhunter who methodically sets about dismantling the murderous Scalotti gang…

As WWII gripped America’s servicemen and Home Front masses, comic book dream team Joe Simon & Jack Kirby quit Timely Comics after publisher Martin Goodman failed to make good on his financial obligations. They jumped ship to National/DC, who welcomed them with open arms and a big chequebook.

Initially an unhappy fit, bursting with brash, bold ideas the company were uncomfortable with, the pair were handed two failing strips to play with until they found their creative feet. After proving their worth with The Sandman and Manhunter, they were left to their own devices and promptly perfected comic books’ “Kid Gang” genre with a unique junior Foreign Legion entitled The Boy Commandos. These kids were soon sharing the spotlight with Batman in flagship Detective Comics and in a solo title which was frequently amongst the company’s top three sellers.

A Robinson Dynamic Duo cover for #64 (June 1942) foreshadows a new kind of comics experience as ‘The Commandos are Coming’ cleverly follows the path of a French Nazi collaborator who finds the courage to fight against his country’s conquerors after meeting the bombastic military unit.

We never learn how or why American Captain Rip Carter commands a British Commando unit nor why he’s allowed to bring a quartet of war-orphans with him on a succession of deadly sorties into “Festung Europa”, North Africa, the Pacific or Indo-Chinese theatres of war. All we must accept is that cockney urchin Alfy Twidgett, French garcon Pierre (later unobtrusively renamed Andre) Chavard, little Dutch boy Jan Haasen and rough, tough lout Brooklyn are fighting the battles we would if we only had the chance…

‘The Crimes of Two-Face!’ begin in #66 (August 1942 and sporting a Robinson/George Roussos cover): detailing the debut of a true classic villain courtesy of Finger, Kane & Robinson. A sophisticate classical tragedy in crime-caper form, here Gotham DA Harvey Kent (whose name was later changed by editorial diktat to Dent) is disfigured in court and goes mad – becoming a conflicted thief and insanely unpredictable killer who remains one of the Caped Crusader’s greatest foes.

As seen on the Win Mortimer cover, ‘The Riddler!’ first challenged Batman and Robin in #140 (October 1948 by Finger, Dick Sprang, Charles Paris) as carnival con-man and inveterate cheat Edward Nigma takes his obsession with puzzles to a perilous extreme: becoming a costumed criminal and matching wits with the brilliant Batman in a contest that threatens to turn the entire city upside down.

‘The Origin of Pow-Wow Smith!’ in #151 (September 1949) awaits behind a Batman cover by Jim Mooney, but addresses the growing popularity of western tales as Don Cameron, Carmine Infantino & George Klein explore the life of a college-educated Indian Lawman who becomes a modern-day sheriff.

As super heroes lost their appeal in the 1950s, Detective Comics shed its costumed cohort for more rationalistic reasoners and grounded champions. One of the most offbeat was Roy Raymond, a TV personality who hosted hit series Impossible… But True.

Illustrated by Ruben Moreira, it launched in #153 (November 1949 and proudly displaying a Sprang Bat-cover) with ‘The Land of Lost Years!’ The first tale set the pattern: researchers or members of the public would present weird or “supernatural” items or mysteries that the arch-debunker would inevitably expose as misunderstanding, mistake or, as in this case of this reverse fountain of youth, criminal fraud…

Dale Cendali then presents A Peek Behind the Pages, sharing pages from Lew Sayre Schwartz’s Sketchbook circa his illustration of the lead story in Detective Comics #200, after which issue #225 (November 1955) manifests the first new superhero of the Silver Age, courtesy of Joe Samachson Joe Certa.

At the height of US Flying Saucer fever and following a bat-cover from Win Mortimer, John Jones, Manhunter from Mars debuted in ‘The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel’: describing how a reclusive genius builds a robot-brain to access Time, Space and the Fourth Dimension, accidentally plucking an alien scientist from his home on Mars. After a brief conversation with his unfortunate guest, Erdel succumbs to a heart attack whilst attempting to return the incredible J’onn J’onzz to his point of origin.

Marooned on Earth, the Martian realises his new home is riddled with the primitive cancer of Crime and determines to use his natural abilities (which include telepathy, mind-over-matter psychokinesis, shape-shifting, invisibility, intangibility, super-strength, speed, flight, vision, invulnerability and many others) to eradicate the evil, working clandestinely disguised as a human policeman. His only safety concern is the commonplace chemical reaction of fire which saps Martians of all their mighty powers. With his name Americanised to John Jones he enlists as a Police Detective and begins an auspicious career…

Today fans are used to a vast battalion of bat-themed and leather-winged champions haunting Gotham City and its troubled environs, but for the longest time it was just Bruce and Dick, occasionally with their borrowed dog Ace, keeping crime on the run. However, in Detective Comics #233 (July 1956, three months before the debut of The Flash officially ushered in the Silver Age) the editorial powers-that-be unleashed bold heiress Kathy Kane, who incessantly suited-up in chiropteran red-&-yellow for the next eight years.

‘The Bat-Woman’ by Edmond Hamilton, Moldoff & Paris premiered with the former circus acrobat bursting into Batman’s life, challenging him to discover her secret identity at the risk of exposing his own…

Trauma by Glen David Gold pauses the comics action to discuss the role and symbolism of orphans before a return to incipient family-friendly silliness as ‘Batman Meets Bat-Mite!’ #267 (May 1959 by Finger, Moldoff & Paris) takes us to a new level. The introduction of the Gotham Guardian’s most controversial “partner” – a pestiferous, prank-playing extra-dimensional elf who adored the Dynamic Duo and used his magic to extend or amp up the perils he enjoyed observing – was, for many readers, an all-time low but the strange scamp had his fans too…

In an era overburdened by gangsters and bank heists, new super villains were rare but not unknown. From #298 (December 1961) Finger, Moldoff & Paris’ ‘The Challenge of Clay-Face’ saw our heroes battle shapeshifting thief Matt Hagen who would return many times before Batman underwent a big change and media apotheosis…

By the end of 1963, Julius Schwartz had revived much of DC’s superhero line – and the entire industry – with his modernization of masked champions and costumed characters, and was asked to work his magic with the Caped Crusader. Bringing his usual team of creators with him, he stripped down the trappings and returned to the core-concept, bringing a modern take to the capture of criminals, whilst downplaying all the Aliens, outlandish villains and daft transformation tales. He even oversaw a streamlining and rationalisation of the art style itself.

The most apparent change to us kids was a yellow circle around the Bat-symbol, but more fundamentally the stories themselves changed. Subtle menace had re-entered the comfortable and abstract world of Gotham City. The revolution began with Detective Comics #327 (cover-dated May 1964) as ‘The Mystery of the Menacing Mask!’ – written by John Broome and illustrated by Carmine Infantino & Joe Giella presented a baffling “Howdunnit?” steeped in action and suspense.

Tracking an underground pipeline of missing crooks and encountering a wise guy who was literally untouchable underlined the renewed intention to emphasise the “Detective” part of the title for the foreseeable future. This comic was to be a brain-teaser from now on…

The advent of the Batman TV show soon followed and the world went Bat-manic…

The series inevitably influenced the comics and, as well as a lightening of tone, threw up new characters.

In ‘The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!’ (Detective Comics, #359, cover-dated January 1967) writer Gardner Fox and art team supreme Carmine Infantino & Sid Greene introduce Barbara Gordon, mousy librarian and daughter of the venerable Police Commissioner into the superhero limelight. By the time the third TV season began on September 14, 1967, she was well-established.

A different Batgirl, Betty Kane, niece of the 1950s Batwoman, was already a comics fixture, but for reasons far too complex and irrelevant to mention was conveniently forgotten to make room for the new, empowered woman in the fresh tradition of Emma Peel, Honey West and the Girl from U.N.C.L.E. She was pretty hot too, which is always a plus for television…

Whereas she fought the Penguin on the small screen, her paper origin features the no less ludicrous but at least visually forbidding Killer Moth in a clever yarn that still stands up today. The Lethal Lepidopteran was about to kidnap Bruce Wayne until Babs stumbles in and busts up his scheme…

After San Diego’s former top cop Shelley Zimmerman discusses the value of ‘Inspiration’ we jump to a darker decade for ‘Challenge of the Man-Bat’ (Detective Comics #400, June 1970) wherein Frank Robbins, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano use the big anniversary to launch a dark counterpoint to the Gotham Gangbuster when driven scientist Kirk Langstromcreates a serum to make himself superior to Batman… and pays a heavy price for his hubris.

One of the most celebrated superhero series in comics history, Manhunter catapulted young Walter Simonson to the front ranks of creators, revolutionised the way dramatic adventures were told and still remains the most lauded back-up strip ever produced.

Concocted and scripted by genial genius and then-neophyte editor Archie Goodwin as a back-up strip for Detective (running for just a year from #437-443, October/November 1973 to October/November 1974), the seven episodes – a mere 68 pages – won six Academy of Comic Book Arts Awards during its far too brief run.

Following a rousing Jim Aparo cover for #437, opening episode ‘The Himalayan Incident’ sees Interpol agent Christine St. Clair tracking a seeming super-assassin who acts like no true criminal. Although not included here the pursuit leads her to the story of dead hero Paul Kirk (during the Golden Age he was the Manhunter briefly crafted by Simon & Kirby): a big game hunter and part-time costumed mystery man.

Becoming a dirty jobs specialist for the Allies in WWII, he lost all love of life and died in a hunting accident in 1946. Decades later he seemingly resurfaced, and came to the attention of St. Clair. Thinking him no more than an identity thief she soon uncovered an incredible plot by a cadre of the World’s greatest scientists who had formed an organisation to assume control of the planet.

The Council had infiltrated all corridors of power, making huge technological advances (such as stealing the hero’s individuality by cloning him into an army of superior soldiers), slowly achieving their goals with no-one the wiser, until the returned Paul Kirk upset their plans and resolved to thwart their ultimate goals…

Kirk’s entire tragic quest to regain his humanity and dignity culminated in a terse team-up after Batman stumbles into the plot, almost inadvertently handing the Council ultimate victory. ‘Götterdämmerung’ (#443 by Goodwin & Simonson) fully lived up to its title and perfectly wrapped up the saga.

With cover and illustration by Dick Giordano, ‘There is No Hope in Crime Alley!’ (#457, March 1976, scripted by Denny O’Neil, with inks by Terry Austin) is a powerful and genuinely moving tale introducing pacifist Leslie Thompkins: the woman who first cared for the boy Bruce Wayne on the night his parents were murdered, after which O’Neil uses his prose Time Machine to deliver a telling history lesson about publishing and storytelling.

Next up is a rousing tale from a trend-setting run by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers & Austin. Detective # 474 (December 1977) uses ‘The Deadshot Ricochet’ to update an old loser. The second-ever appearance of a murderous high society dilettante sniper (after his initial outing in Batman #59, 1950) sees frustrated killer Floyd Lawton escape jail and go in search of simple, honest revenge. The tale so reinvigorated the third-rate trick-shooter that he’s seldom been missing from the DC Universe since; starring in a number of series such as Suicide Squad and Secret Six, a couple of eponymous miniseries and on both silver and small screens.

Devised by Bob Rozakis, Michael Golden & Bob Smith, ‘Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure!’ was a short feature in giant-sized Detective Comics #482 (February/March 1979, sporting a cover by Rich Buckler & Giordano) that begat an unlikely revival for the impetuous imp. A hilarious, fourth-wall busting romp, it sees the geeky trans-dimensional sprite invading the offices of DC comics to deliver a personal protest at his seeming sidelining in recent years…

Author, journalist and activist Cory Doctorow examines cultural content and impact in Occupy Gotham before major anniversary issue Detective #500 (March 1981) celebrates by bringing Batman and Robin to another Earth to prevent the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne in the beguiling altered vision ‘To Kill a Legend’ by Alan Brennert & Giordano, supplemented by a jam cover courtesy of Aparo, Giordano, Infantino, Simonson & Joe Kubert.

As the DCU underwent a radical reboot during Crisis on Infinite Earths, a run of experimental stories resulted in Harlan Ellison, Gene Colan & Bob Smith detailing a city crime patrol where nothing goes right on ‘The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!’ (#567 October 1986).

‘The Honored Dead’ (#742 March 2000) by Greg Rucka, Shawn Martinbrough & Steve Mitchell foucuses on a character as old and resilient as Batman himself as recently bereaved Police Commissioner Jim Gordon returns to duty in only to lose more colleagues and descend into a vengeful, suicidal spiral. Good thing he still has a few unconventional friends to pull him through…

Closing this immense commemorative tome comes Lost Stories offering a glimpse at commissioned works which for a variety of reasons never saw print: in this case excerpts from aborted 2012 miniseries ‘Batman: Mortality’ by Paul Levitz, Denys Cowan & John Floyd, represented here by pages of script and original art, before an all-star selection from rebooted Detective Comics volume 2 #27 (March 2014) reimagines ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’ via Brad Meltzer & Bryan Hitch, whilst Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy takes us into the far future to see the evolution of the Dark Knight in ‘Twenty-Seven’.

Illustrated by Mark Chiarello, ‘Watching from the Shadows’ is Neil Gaiman’s fond appreciation of the hero and his universe, after which ‘Cover Highlights’ brings a selection of stunning examples from the Golden, Silver, Bronze andDark ages of Gotham Guardian, as well as the very best of Detective Comics ‘Now’.

Should you be of a scholarly or just plain reverential mood you can then study the copious ‘Biographies’ section so you know who to thank…

Exciting, epochal and unmissable, this is book for all fans of superhero stories.
© 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1942, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1955, 1956, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1967, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1986, 2000, 2014, 2019 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Adventures of Tintin: Flight 714 to Sydney


By Hergé, Bob De Moor, Roger Leloup and others, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper & Michael Turner (Egmont UK/Methuen/Little Brown Books)
ISBN: 978-1-40520-821-5 (HB) 978-0-31635-837-8 (Album PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Great British Tradition of Belgian Origin. Gotta Get ‘Em All… 10/10

Georges Prosper Remi, AKA Hergé, created an eternal masterpiece of graphic literature with his tales of a plucky boy reporter and entourage of iconic associates. Singly, and later with assistants including Edgar P. Jacobs, Bob de Moor, Roger Leloup and other supreme stylists of the Hergé Studio, he created 23 timeless yarns (initially serialised in instalments for a variety of newspaper periodicals) which have since grown beyond their pop culture roots to attain the status of High Art and international cultural icons.

On leaving school in 1925, Remi began working for conservative Catholic newspaper Le Vingtiéme Siécle where he fell under the influence of its Svengali-esque editor Abbot Norbert Wallez. A devoted boy scout, one year later the artist was producing his first strip series – The Adventures of Totor – for monthly Boy Scouts of Belgium magazine. By 1928 Remi was in charge of producing the contents of the newspaper’s weekly children’s supplement Le Petit Vingtiéme.

While he was illustrating The Adventures of Flup, Nénesse, Poussette and Cochonette – written by the staff sports reporter – Wallez required his compliant creative cash-cow to concoct a new and contemporary adventure series. Perhaps a young reporter who roamed the world, doing good whilst displaying solid Catholic values and virtues?

The rest is history…

Some of that history is quite dark: During the Nazi Occupation of Belgium, Le Vingtiéme Siécle was closed down and Hergé was compelled to move his supremely popular strip to daily newspaper Le Soir (Brussels’ most prominent French-language periodical, and thus appropriated and controlled by the Nazis).

He diligently toiled on for the duration, but following Belgium’s liberation was accused of collaboration and even of being a Nazi sympathiser. It took the intervention of Belgian Resistance war-hero Raymond Leblanc to dispel the cloud over Hergé, which he did by simply vouching for the cartoonist through words and deeds.

Leblanc provided cash to create a new magazine – Le Journal de Tintin – which he published and managed. The anthology comic swiftly achieved a huge weekly circulation, allowing Remi and his studio team to remaster past tales: excising material dictated by the Fascist invaders to ideologically shade the wartime adventures. These modernising post-war exercises also generally improved and updated the great tales, just in time for Tintin to become a global phenomenon, both in books and as an early star of animated TV adventure.

With the war over and his reputation restored, Hergé entered the most successful period of his artistic career. He had mastered his storytelling craft, possessed a dedicated audience eager for his every effort and was finally able to say exactly what he wanted in his work, free from fear or censure, if not his personal demons and declining health…

The greatest sign of this was not substantially in the comics tales – although Hergé continued to tinker with the form of his efforts – but rather in how long the gaps were between new exploits. The last romp had finished serialisation in September 1962 and been collected as an album in 1963. Vol 714 pour Sydney began its weekly run in Le Journal de Tintin #936 – 27th September 1966 – and concluded in #997, cover-dated November 28th 1967. The inevitable book collection came in May 1968.

Flight 714 To Sydney appears to be a return to classic adventure, but conceals some ironic modernist twists, opening with our heroes hurriedly en route to Australia. During an intrigue-redolent stopover at Djakarta, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus are inveigled (almost duped) into joining unconventional and somewhat unpleasant aviation tycoon Laszlo Carreidas on his personal supersonic prototype. The petty-minded multi-millionaire obviously has some ulterior design but cannot be dissuaded.

However, due to the type of coincidence that plagues our heroes, that plane has been targeted by the villainous outlaw Rastapopoulos whose gang hijack the aircraft and land it on a desolate Pacific island. The former criminal mastermind has a crazy scheme to siphon off Carreidas’ fortune but has lost a lot of his old sinister efficiency…

After many ploys and countermoves between the opposing forces, and with danger a constant companion, the prisoners escape the villain’s clutches only to discover that the Island is volcanic and conceals a fantastic ancient secret that dwarfs the threat of mere death and penury before escalating to a spectacular climax no reader will ever forget…

Although full of Hergé’s trademark slapstick humour, there is also a sly undercurrent of self-examination that highlights the intrinsic futility of the criminals’ acts. As time has passed, the murderous human monsters have all been exposed as foolish, posturing and largely ineffectual.

Nevertheless, the yarn is primarily an extremely effective, suspenseful action thriller with science fiction roots as the author plays with the multifarious strands of international research then in vogue which led to Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and other lesser known tracts of cod science.

Once more the supernormal plays a large part in proceedings – but not as a malign force – and this time science and rationality, not the supernatural, are the basis of the wonderment. Flight 714 To Sydney is slick, compelling and astoundingly engaging: a true epic escapade no fan of fun could fail to adore.
Flight 714 To Sydney: artwork © 1968 Casterman, Paris & Tournai. Text © 1968 Egmont UK Limited. All rights reserved.

The Pits of Hell


By Ebisu Yoshikazu (Breakdown Press)
ISBN: 978-1-91108-108-1 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Shocking, Momentous, Unmissable… 8/10

Please be warned: I’ll be using some harsh language further down: if you of your dependents are likely to be offended, please skip this review. You certainly won’t be comfortable reading the book we’re reviewing here…

If you’re one of those people who’s never read a manga tale, or who’s been tempted but discouraged by the terrifying number of volumes these tales can run to, here’s a delicious feast of fantasy fables complete in one book revealing all that’s best about comics from the East in one darkly digestible big gulp.

Although an industry of immense, almost incomprehensible variety, much of Japan’s output is never seen in western translation, so for us, most manga – divided into story genres we easily recognise – can be lazily characterised by a fast, raucous, over-stylised, occasionally choppy style and manner of delivery, offering peeks into the quirks of a foreign culture through coy sensuality, carefully managed action and “aw shucks” conviviality.

It’s not all like that.

This volume gathers emphatically eerie and definitely disturbing short stories for adults that originate from the nation’s rebellious heta-uma movement (equivalent to but not the same as our late 1970s Punk revolution), all crafted by a fringe creator who became a true national treasure…

Ebisu Yoshikazu began as an outsider: a self-trained manga maker who shunned the sleek polish of mainstream Japanese comics to craft deeply personal ant-art yarns, initially for avant-garde counter culture anthology style icon Garo and landmark experiment Jam, but later for many other magazines after his harsh material struck a chord with 1970s-1980s readers, increasingly reeling from social and economic change.

Mr. Yoshikazu was born in Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture in October 1947 and raised in Nagasaki, where he was fatefully shaped by the post war trauma that permeated the region and the country. Drawing comics from early on, he was especially influenced by the fantasy works of Osamu Tezuka and Mitsuteru Yokoyama, but as a teenager his life changed when he discovered the gekiga (“Dramatic Pictures”) comics sub-genre as well as American action movies.

He moved to Tokyo in 1970 and – while working menial jobs – began submitting stories to Garo in 1973. His bleak, violently surreal, dream-based efforts featured bizarre, antisocial situations and outcomes and found a welcome – if unpaid – home in the magazine. He became a fan favourite without his knowledge and when years later he finally released a compilation of his tales, was astonished to see it become a huge hit with many reprintings.

The creatively-driven working-class manga-maker – think more Harvey Pekar than Harvey Kurtzman – parlayed his growing fame as an outsider artist and misfit into mass-media celebrity, but latterly suffered a great loss of fame, prestige and revenue following a gambling scandal.

In Japan, commercial betting is illegal except in certain, highly proscribed and policed situations. That doesn’t bother Ebisu Yoshikazu who remains a proud advocate and champion of what many people consider a shameful addiction. His passion for wagers has shaped his life and continues to …

Heta-uma transliterates to “bad-good” or “bad but nice”: glorying in the power of raw, primitivist graphics and narratives that are seductively seditious whilst exploring uncomfortable themes, so please be warned that most of these nine early vignettes are brutally violent and also distressing on other, more intimate levels. If you’re looking for Western equivalents, go no further than the more excessive outings of Gary Panter and Johnny Ryan…

This potent tome reprints that first compilation in English and is preceded (or followed by – depending on your graphic orientation, as the comics portion of the book is traditional manga right to left, end to beginning format) by a series of text features including ‘Why is This So Good?’: a deconstruction of the stories by Garo editor Minami Shinbō from the 1981 original compilation.

‘About these Comics’ offers the author’s own thoughts on the material from 2016 and is followed by extended essay ‘Damn All Gamblers to the Pits of Hell’ by translator/editor Ryan Holmberg affording us not only history, context and insight into the artist but also gauging the effects of his works on the industry and society.

The stories begin with a shocking answer to classroom inattention in ‘Teachers Damned to the Pits of Hell’ after which a poor family hungrily await the results of father’s latest addictive session at the pachinko parlour in ‘Fuck Off’.

Many stories take a hard but always off-kilter look at employment and wage earning. ‘Workplace’ deals with a time when Yoshikazu worked as a sign designer’s much-abused assistant and vicariously, cathartically, depicts what the menial wanted most, whereas ‘Wiped Out Workers’ details a plague of selective narcolepsy that grips salarymen and other hapless toilers during their daily travails.

‘Tempest of Love’ addresses the imbalance and inequality of the sexes as a job-enhancing abacus class devolves into a ghastly crime scene, whilst a punter’s obsessive attention to the sanctioned boat races and his crucial bets result in a strange series of events that can only be explained by ‘ESP’…

More uncomfortable sexual tension is dangerously unleashed at the ‘Late Night Party’ provided by a smug boss before the spiralling cost of living sparks civil unrest and deadly consequences in ‘Battles without Honor and Humanity: A Documentary’.

The walk on the weird wild side then concludes with a phantasmagorical deluge of uncanny situations and crises as a worker takes his son for a walk in ‘Salaryman in Hell’

By no means a work of universal appeal, The Pits of Hell provides a stunning and revelatory look at the other side of Japanese comics: one no fan of the medium can afford to miss.
English edition © 2019 Breakdown Press. Translation and essay © 2019 Ryan Holmberg. All rights reserved.